Embattled Trump fans dig in at Michigan county fair

The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

Tammy, 49, her mother Mary and daughter Nikki, 11, sat polishing off a corn dog on a bench at the Ottawa County fair. They were sheltering from the late-July sun, mercifully upwind of the malodorous goat show, and around the corner from the Redneck Fries stall, in this traditionally conservative community near the shores of Lake Michigan. But they were also hiding out from the political fireworks around Michigan’s August 2 primary election.

Former President Donald Trump and his loyal band of 2020 election deniers had a good primary in this battleground state, which voted narrowly for Trump in 2016 and less narrowly against him in 2020. Tudor Dixon, a Trump-endorsed candidate from another west Michigan town, won the Republican primary for governor, after half of her primary rivals were disqualified for falsifying petition signatures.

In a nearby US congressional race, election conspiracy theorist and Trump favourite John Gibbs booted out incumbent Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump after last year’s Capitol attack. These victories underscore the influence that the former president continues to wield among voters like Tammy and her family in rural Midwestern communities.

Tammy, a retirement home cafeteria worker, and her mother, a retired house cleaner, were quick to insist that victory was stolen from Trump in 2020 — a view still held by about 70 per cent of Republican voters, according to the Poynter Institute. The two women were just as quick to say they would vote Trump again in 2024: “I hope he runs,” said Tammy.

Asked whether they were watching televised hearings of the US congressional inquiry into the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack, which has heard evidence that Trump incited his supporters to violence, both women scowled. “I don’t think he did anything wrong”, said Tammy, as her mother nodded silently in agreement. Some 75 per cent of Republican primary voters said Trump was “just exercising his right to contest the election”, and less than one in five said he “went so far that he threatened American democracy”, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll. It also found that 49 per cent of primary voters would back Trump if he ran again, far more than potential rivals.

Democrats are hoping bad publicity from the January 6 commission will dent public support for Trump, but Midwest voters like Tammy tell a different story. She says inflation — the price of corn dogs — not the Capitol insurrection, is her top political issue. This echoes a recent Iowa poll which found that 71 per cent of Republicans, and 62 per cent of independents in Iowa put inflation top.

A food stall at the Ottawa County Fair. There are signs that the local Republican party is turning to the right © Patti Waldmeir/FT

Just past the funnel cakes and elephant ears, opposite the “Dutch Fatballs”, I asked volunteers at the Ottawa County Republican Party tent to explain why so many Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen. A 39-year-old county employee who gave his name as City, took a break from handing out GOP lollipops to cite news reports of an illicit “vote dump” at the counting centre in Detroit. But he also mentioned problems with absentee ballots: he claimed to have received five ballots erroneously mailed to his home, while a GOP passer-by said he got eight.

Meanwhile there are signs that the local GOP is turning to the right, with several moderate county commissioners unseated in the primary by more radical Republicans fighting on an anti-mask and culture wars platform. City, the GOP volunteer, supports the interlopers — though he worries they may hurt the party’s chances in upcoming midterm elections unless Republicans learn to “stick together”. 

But the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won Ottawa County was in 1864 so it seems a fair bet the GOP will remain strong here either way. Trump can count on the unshakeable devotion of voters like Tammy. But it’s less clear whether that will be enough to win the day for Republicans in Michigan — this most fickle of Midwest battlegrounds — or even to guarantee the former president the nomination, if he wants it.

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